Tensions and rhetoric rise after sinking of South Korean ship

UNITED NATIONS-The turmoil that has swept Korea after the tragic March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval ship, and the subsequent death of 46 sailors has left the peninsula closer to the war than it has been for decades, leaving nerves in the region on edge.

South Korea concluded, after the results of an international investigation team were released on May 20, that a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine sunk the ship. North Korea has denied this and said that the conclusions of the team, made up of South Korean, U.S., Australian, Swedish and British investigators, were a “fabrication.”

The south has vowed to bring the issue to the UN Security Council and press for sanctions.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, addressing reporters, said that “such an unacceptable act by [North Korea] runs counter to international efforts to promote peace and stability in the region.”

The peninsula is already technically at war: military hostilities ended in 1953 not with a peace agreement, but with a truce, or armistice. An outright resumption of fighting would be disastrous, as the number and power of weapons in Korea and the region has increased dramatically. North Korea has enough conventional weapons to destroy Seoul, and other war tools as well: certain dams, if opened could destroy much of the south. Further, North Korea now is said to possess enough nuclear fuel for several nuclear weapons.

South Korea also has a huge military and weapons stockpile, as well as U.S. bases with tens of thousands of American soldiers. In addition, it is rumored that the U.S. has secret nuclear stockpiles there as well.

While the two halves of Korea are pointing the finger at each other, many observers say that both sides are, if not equally, at least partially to blame. The south has ramped up militarism and, for the first time since the thaw in relations in the 1990s, the right-wing President Lee Myung-bak has declared that the north is South Korea’s “arch-enemy.” North Korea, which denies that it fired the rocket that sunk the Cheonan and killed the sailors, has stated that it will not dialogue with the south until at least 2013, when Lee’s term ends. Further, it has threatened “all out war” if sanctions are imposed.

Regional neighbors are hoping for a different approach.

“We always believe that dialogue is better than confrontation,” read a May 20 statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “and abatement is better than tension. China sincerely hopes that all parties concerned will stay calm, exercise restraint and properly handle relevant issues to avoid the escalation of tension. This is in the fundamental interest of the South and North of the Peninsula and in the common interest of all parties.”

That same day the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga concurred. “Vietnam,” she said, “consistently and persistently supports peace, stability in the Korean Peninsula, and favors dialogue for peaceful settlement of all matters. Vietnam wishes that parties concerned could exercise restraint for the sake of peace, stability in the Korean Peninsula and in the region.”

Nguyen also expressed condolences to South Korea over the loss of lives.

The United States, in a change of course with the previous administration, has reacted cautiously. While underscoring the U.S.-South Korea alliance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, May 26, that reaction should be strong “but measured.” During the Bush administration, when conflicts arose on the peninsula, the standard response was that “all options are on the table.” Now, however, the Obama administration, through Clinton, has been pushing to take the issue to the UNSC to ask for sanctions. Further, Clinton not specified what sort of sanctions the administration would like to see taken and is, instead, waiting for China’s response.

It is likely that the north sank the ship. According to Ban, speaking at a press conference on May 24, “the evidence laid out in the joint international investigation report is overwhelming and deeply troubling.” Still, North Korea has denied the incident and demanded the opportunity to send its own investigators. While Lee has written off the possibility of a North Korean investigation, many in the south and elsewhere are demanding it.

“We need to actively consider a joint North Korean-South Korean investigation, if only to boost the credibility of the results of the joint military-civilian investigation,” said the south’s leading liberal newspaper, the Hankyoreh, in an editorial.

While Lee has condemned the north for allegedly violating the 1991 Basic Agreement, which set some ground rules for relations between North and South Korea, his government also appears to be in violation. According to the agreement, if one side violates its terms, there must be a joint investigation.

Many questions are still up in the air. No one is yet certain as to how China will react to the incident, a key factor, given China’s stature, seat on the Security Council and role as North Korea’s chief ally. While progressive forces in Korea and neighboring countries are demanding that both sides move a step back from the belligerence that has set the region on edge and start a dialogue, the best possible outcome remains unclear.

Photo: The two Koreas maintain a Joint Security Area at the Demilitarized Zone. (CC)